Sometimes Harvest Is Fun… And Sometimes It’s Not

A year ago today, harvest was nearly finished. It was the tenth of October that we completed our final field, which happened to be a very late crop of durum. While the harvest of 2013 had its challenges, including some rain delays and a couple frustrating breakdowns, it was completed at a time we could be happy with- and it was a monster of a crop. This year has been very different.

Rains kept us out of the field for much of late August and early September. While we were able to get a fair amount done during that time, including our winter wheat and green peas, our poor durum sat out in the field through it all. Durum is very susceptible to grading losses in such conditions, and ours was no exception.

Traditionally, durum has been one of the best paying crops in our area. It almost always out-yields its cousin, spring wheat, and usually pays better, too. It is used for pastas, primarily. Next time you make spaghetti, check the ingredients; you will see that durum is its base origin. For reasons that I have yet to understand (despite a fair amount of research), durum simply grows well in this area. Go a few miles east or north, few farmers grow it. From our home and west, however, the landscape brims with field after field of durum.

Unfortunately, in the last few years, our durum production has been threatened, with late springs and disease taking their toll. One disease in particular has reared its ugly head in a big way this year: Fusarium Head Blight (FHB for short). This disease is particularly fond of durum. Basically, this fungus enters the head as it undergoes its flowering stage, typically in late July. Its symptoms are not visible until late in the season, when it is far too late to do anything about it. Preventative fungicide sprays do work, but they have limited effectiveness on the disease in years where the humidity is very high for a prolonged period in the summer. Warm, damp conditions can cause severe proliferation of the disease. Essentially, the seeds produced by the plant are damaged by the fungus, and sometimes seed production may even be diminished.

This is an infected head near maturity. Notice the top of the head- not many seeds in there.
This is an infected head near maturity. Notice the top of the head- not many seeds in there.

This year has the worst infection levels I have ever seen. We are seeing substantial downgrading from our buyers.  This crop is graded on a basic numbering system: it starts as a #1 CWAD (Canadian Western Amber Durum) and works its way down to a #5 CWAD (if it’s really poor, it goes even lower than that- sample is below #5. We have that grade this year, too). The difference in price between these varies from year to year, but this year the difference is over $4 per bushel, depending on the buyer. So, take your average durum yield, say 50 bushels per acre, and calculate what your losses are on 2,000 acres. That is the number many durum producers are looking at this year (give or take some acres and yield).

Fortunately, yields are pretty strong, so that kind of makes up for the poor quality. But, some durum is so bad this year that some producers cannot even sell it. You see, Fusarium produces “vomitoxins” that are difficult for animals (yes, that includes people) to digest. Think “toxin” and “vomit” and you get the idea. If people can’t eat it, and livestock can’t eat it, what do you do with it? Simple- it’s garbage. Burn it, bury it, whatever. But it’s total trash.

No, we don’t have any durum that bad. But some of ours is awfully close. Even spring wheat has been heavily affected this year, which is quite rare. In a year as wet as this one has been, disease is a serious issue- in all crops.

Notice the shredded stem with the black spots inside? That's Sclerotinia Stem Rot. It definitely compromised the yield of this canola plant.
Notice the shredded stem with the black spots inside? That’s Sclerotinia Stem Rot. It definitely compromised the yield of this canola plant.

Even stripping out the disease portion, all the rains have severely compromised the quality of all types of wheat, as well as lentils, barley, and a variety of other crops. The rains simply came at the wrong time this fall- right at the beginning of harvest. And now, we sit again, with nothing moving for the past week. We still have a ways to go to finish harvest, and many of our neighbors, especially to the east of us, have even further to go.

Is this a disaster scenario? No. At least, not for us. Our durum yielded well enough, and our costs are low enough, that we can actually break even on #5 durum this year. One advantage of growing a variety of crops is that some are pretty resilient to ugly harvest weather. For example, flax, soybeans and canola are pretty tolerant to harvest rains and really haven’t seen a reduction in yield from this weather. Frost beat up the flax and soybeans a bit, but it may not have done as much damage as we feared. It did get awfully windy one day, which can be very damaging to ripe, swathed canola, but it didn’t get us on too many of our acres.

Take a close look at these swaths. The wind moved them around pretty badly. That costs a lot of canola.
Take a close look at these swaths. The wind moved them around pretty badly. That costs a lot of canola.

I guess when you look at harvest 2014 on the whole, it really has been a harvest fraught with every kind of yield reducing factor you can imagine. Rain, frost, wind and disease all took their toll this year, with no crop escaping from them all. Only our winter wheat got through relatively unscathed, due to its early harvesting date.

I do want to make one thing clear: I consider us to be pretty lucky with what weather we have gotten. Obviously, it could have been a lot better. We could have gotten less rain, less wind, and warmer nights. But we could also have gotten snow (southern Alberta did), we could have had that windy day earlier, when more canola was unharvested, or we could be getting stuck in our fields every day, like some of my friends have been. The thing is, no matter how bad the weather may be, somebody is always getting it worse somewhere else. No matter how bad your year, or your month, or your day has been, it could always be worse. The fact is that 73% of our harvest is completed, when it could be 50%, or 30%. Sometimes, when things look really bad, you just need to sit back and think about how good some things are (although, if it snows next week, you may see my mood shift a little darker).

Hopefully we can resume harvest tomorrow. We still have many other jobs to do as well, like spraying, tilling, and grain hauling, so we need a good stretch of nice weather to get through it all. But it will come. It always has.

Leguee Wheat Harvest

 

Advertisements

The End of The Growing Season Has Come Too Early

Frost. A swear word to farmers throughout the bulk of the growing season. An event that can quite literally ruin a crop overnight. This week, our farm experienced multiple nights below freezing, with  a couple of nights nearing five degrees below zero. Granted, September 10-15 is actually a pretty normal first-frost date on the Canadian Prairies. So what is everyone so worried about?

I think the emphasis needs to be placed on “normal first frost”. The 2014 growing season has been anything but normal; with a very late start to seeding, a cold, wet spring and a very wet start to summer, crops did not exactly get a stellar start. A late start to seeding became a late finish, with many crops seeded well into June. Cool, wet weather slowed their emergence and establishment, and torrential downpours set them back substantially. We were set up for a late crop, as even the fields seeded at the end of May were of a concern.

Summer allowed us to forget those fears, with 6 weeks of beautiful weather allowing our crops to flourish. While the damage from the rain had already been done, with substantial areas flooded out, it was looking like crops just might turn out alright. Nevertheless, we would still need at least the 20th of September without a frost to get everything mature in time.

We now know that that was not to be. The weather took a turn for the worse at the end of August, with wet, cool weather returning. Fields became increasingly wet, disease levels shot up, and crop maturation rates slowed. Now, after weeks of wet weather ruining the quality of our wheat and durum crops, frost has severely damaged our later cereals, in addition to our flax and soybeans.

What Does An Early Frost Do?

Like many aspects of crop production, the answer is, quite simply, it depends. A “frost” is really not as simple as it sounds. Sometimes, it can freeze only for a couple of hours and only a couple degrees below freezing. This does minimal damage. Obviously then, a frost well below zero for many hours will be much worse. A frost like that kills- well, everything.

Frosty Morning Seeding
A cold and frosty morning for seeding winter wheat- and for immature crops.

Imagine a lovely old wheat plant, wearily nearing the end of its lifespan, slowly stashing away all its nutrients, all of its sugars, and all of its hopes and dreams into its progeny (okay, maybe I’m being a little melodramatic here). Giving itself entirely to its offspring, our tired old wheat plant is getting ready to shut down for good and release its newborn seeds. Suddenly, out of the blue, WHAM! a frost hits, and our poor old wheat plant suddenly dies. It cannot fulfill its lifespan. Instead of a slow, methodical shutdown to prepare its offspring for the world, the plant is suddenly finished, leaving the immature seed out on its own- and it’s not ready for that yet. The still immature seed, depending on its level of maturity, will stay green forever; or, if older, will shrivel up, unable to finish filling to its required plumpness. The green seeds are useless to us as a commodity, and even the more mature but still-shriveled seeds will weigh up poorly, costing yield, and will not fulfill their primary purpose: making bread.

Ultimately, you, as a customer, will not want bread from shriveled up, frozen wheat. It won’t rise properly, it won’t taste right, and it won’t look very nice. That all comes back to Immature Wheatus, and our product. If the customer doesn’t want it, it’s no good. It isn’t a total waste, however; it will likely get blended off with better wheat, or worst case it will be fed to livestock. Either way, it’s not worth much. That wheat may have been worth $7 per bushel or better as a #1, high protein milling wheat, but as feed or close to, it may only be worth $4-5 per bushel (or worse, sometimes). That is a 30-40% drop in income, all from one night that just got a little too cold.

For our farm this year, this early frost will hurt our soybeans, some of our latest spring wheat, and our flax. While quality isn’t as much of an issue on flax and soybeans, yield will decline. How much is quite difficult to estimate at this point; we will know when we start combining those crops.

These soybeans are not ready for a frost yet.
These soybeans are not ready for a frost yet. This is two days before a hard freeze.

The early frost is just one more strike against an already tattered crop. Quality wheat and durum will be in very short supply this year, and it will be very difficult to move all of what we have in a timely fashion. Sadly, the area hit by the rain and frost is a large one, and none of us will  have much good quality cereals to blend off the bad stuff with.

Such is the nature of farming; the harsh reality of the life we have chosen. I’m not writing this to ask for sympathy (particularly when I hear about those who were in the snow path this week- that’s a nightmare); rather, I write this to show what a rollercoaster life on the farm can be. One year can be the harvest of a lifetime, and the next can be a harvest you’d sooner forget. Dealing with these ups and downs is incredibly frustrating and financially difficult at times, but it’s all part of the crazy life that is farming. I signed up for this the day I decided I wanted to return to the farm, and I don’t regret it for a minute.

Why is Rain Such a Problem at Harvest?

Maybe this seems like kind of an obvious question, but there is more to this than you may think. Rain raises a whole host of issues for farmers at this time of the year, and is much more than a minor nuisance.

This harvest has been especially difficult so far, with continuous rainy, wet, humid weather plaguing our attempts at combining. Every few days we seem to get more showers, and every night has been frustratingly wet and humid. So, just what does weather like this do to our harvest operations?

  • Soggy fields- Combines are exceptionally large and heavy machines. While they are surprisingly capable despite their lumbering look, too much rain will overwhelm their ability to move around in the fields. Worse, the support equipment tends to be less able Harvest Semisto manage mud, especially semis. Trucks need to be able to get in and out of our fields without getting stuck, and also need to traverse little, narrow back roads that generally lack gravel. With these roads becoming wetter and wetter, we can lose our ability to get to some of our fields. Even the grain cart, attached to a 550 horsepower tractor with tracks, can be overwhelmed in wet conditions. Ever get a 1300 bushel, 55,000 pound, top-heavy wagon stuck out in the middle of a field? Neither have I! And I don’t want to know what it takes to get it unstuck, either.
  • Quality loss- This is arguably the biggest detriment to us in a wet fall. We grow a lot of acres of quality-sensitive crops that are very susceptible to rains when they are mature. Durum in particular quickly loses its glowing amber colour, which is a major factor when it comes to grading. A downgrade from a #1 durum to a #3 can be worth $1 per bushel or more. It’s pretty easy to do the math on that when you grow over 100,000 bushels! Even worse, if the weather stays wet long enough, the crop could become animal feed. Feed wheat right now is worth $3 per bushel less than good quality durum. Ouch! Lentils, green peas and other wheat classes are susceptible as well, and losses can quickly build up in those crops along with the durum.
  • Yield loss- Eventually, given enough rain, even tolerant crops like canola can start to lose yield. How does this happen? Quite simply, the rain washes the seed so much and so aggressively that it begins to lose weight. The lighter each seed gets, the fewer tonnes of grain you end up with at the end of the day. Wheat is the most sensitive to this (of the crops we grow on our farm, that is), and can actually lose quite a large amount of yield to this phenomenon.
  • Expensive field clean-up: This goes back to the soggy field issue; all those ruts you Salford RTSmake with combines, trucks and support equipment must be cleaned up at some point. You’d be amazed how long ruts will hang around if you do nothing with them! This goes right back to basic field tillage, which we usually try to avoid. Tillage burns fuel and uses up iron, and can quickly become a substantial cost.
  • Active weather creates more active weather: When we get trapped in these weather patterns, other events can happen, such as hail, big winds (which can blow away canola swaths in a hurry) and even – gulp – snow. Dry airmasses promote quiet, boring weather, which is what we need.

Of course, the above problems are really only the beginning… worst-case scenarios are much grimmer. Enough rain for enough time will cause far more severe damage, such as sprouting, which can quickly make cereal crops feed; flooding, ruining hundreds of acres of crops; delayed maturity, which is all fine and good as long as it stays cloudy- but that first clear night can lead to early frosts, further reducing the quality of the crop. Are we trending into a worst-case scenario right now? It’s hard to say at this point. If our durum and spring wheat are sprouting, we will find out when we start combining again. Right now, we simply don’t know.

All this uncertainty further complicates marketing. How do we know what we can sell? You Farm Breakevensell wheat based on its quality specifications, which are a total unknown right now. We really don’t even know what the yield will be, since so much of the crop is flooded out from weather this spring. Furthermore, since most of Saskatchewan and Manitoba are facing the same situation, will there be a glut of feed wheat and low-quality durum? Even though misery truly does love company, if everyone has the same quality of wheat, we have nowhere to haul ours to to blend off with better quality stuff. A burdensome supply of low-quality wheat and durum will be difficult to move as well, which weakens our cash flow.

Finally, an exceptionally wet fall such as this one can complicate seeding next year’s crop. For example, 2010 was a fall much like this one. September was miserable, with most of our crop sitting in rains for the better part of the month. Fields were soggy, and never had enough time to dry out before winter came. Winter proved to be a wet one, with substantial snowfall burying wet fields for the duration of the season. 2011 is a year we will remember for the rest of our lives- the year we couldn’t seed the crop. The fall previous was a big part of the reason for that disaster. Seeing a fall turn so wet again is concerning. Especially when we have plans to seed 2,000 acres of winter wheat! We always seed it into canola stubble, which has yet to even be harvested yet. We have 2 weeks to seed that crop before it gets too late. That’s not much time, and the concerns I have for next spring increase my anxiety to get the winter wheat in the ground.

Am I overdoing this here? Am I exaggerating to prove a point? Or am I a typical farmer, always complaining about the weather?

If you’ve ever read my blog, you’ll know that I am always brutally honest about my concerns and frustrations with the weather. Indeed, as a farmer, the weather controls much of my life: my income, my day-to-day activities, and ultimately my ability to keep doing what it is I love most- growing crops. Weather such as what we are experiencing right now is stressful in a way I don’t think many non-farmers can imagine. Hopefully this blog gives you some idea of what it’s like!

Our farm’s ability to survive depends on being able to sell enough dollars of crop to cover the cost of growing them. This weather is substantially reducing those dollars. I, along with other farmers, talk about the weather so much because every single day changes the potential income of our business. Rain or sun, warm or cool, either way can be good or bad depending on the year. This year, and the last several before it, have given us so much wet weather that I think we are all feeling a little burned out. We need a change.

Come on, Mother Nature. Give us the weather we so desperately need. Give us some sun, give us some heat, and let us get this crop off while it’s still worth something. No more rain!

Harvest Rainbow

It’s All About The Weather Now

It has been just over a week since the Eastern Prairies suffered one of its worst storms in modern history. Mercifully, the weather has improved immensely since, with sun and heat gracing us in most of the days following the torrential rainfall. Many of our crops have recovered fairly well, or as well as can be expected, with some faring better than others. Some plants just have a greater ability to withstand severe weather better than others. Cereals, like wheat and durum, still look excellent, despite some lost acres that are still underwater. Our canola has come a long way, but its yield potential is very much a question mark. Other crops, like our lentils and peas, look quite poor, with a substantial amount of acres flooded out completely, and many other acres with weak yield potential.

We finally were able to complete our in-crop weed control a few days ago with our flax, which is still frustratingly wet. After nearly a week of hot, dry weather, I guess I kind of DSC_0092expected an improvement in the sogginess of our fields. I was unpleasantly surprised, with the sprayer leaving ruts far away from where the water lay. As we now move through some of our crops again with a fungicide, it is still shocking how many acres are lost.

Why do plants die from too much water?

A lot of plants have died from the substantial amount of water in the fields. While much of that water has now vanished, the plants have more or less gone away with it, especially susceptible ones like peas, lentils and canola. Like us, plants need oxygen for life, which is somewhat of an interesting thought, since you generally think of plants as “producing” oxygen. In normal conditions, plants take CO2 and light energy to create sugars, which they use for energy. When light is restricted, they cannot create sugar, so they have to use it, much like we do. When plants are waterlogged, a couple of things happen:

  • Roots cannot access oxygen. While leaves usually have lots of oxygen available from CO2, roots must access it from the soil. Little air pockets in the soil allow roots to “breathe”, but if water has filled all the air pockets, the plant can’t breathe, essentially drowning it. While the plant has some coping mechanisms, they are not overly efficient, and it will eventually be overcome by its inability to access oxygen. The root cells will die, slowly killing the entire root system; without the roots, the plant will die.
  • Since the soil is saturated with water, the plant cannot access the nutrients it needs for life, causing it to starve (more or less). Combined with root death, the plant has no chance to survive.

If the water can leave relatively quickly, say two days or so, the plant will usually recover, as many of them did. But for all too many plants, the water stayed around for far too long.

Not a pretty sight to see, but there are a lot of these spots.
Not a pretty sight to see, but there are a lot of these spots.

At this point in the growing season, we know that a certain amount of production is gone, never to come back. We have probably lost 10-15% of our acres from waterlogging so far, which, when you start to do the math on how much production that can be, is a substantial amount of money. The pressure is even greater now for the remaining acres to yield well, even just to make up for the lost acres.

At least we won’t need to worry about drought now… right?

It pains me to say this even more than it probably irritates you to read it, but despite all of the ridiculous rainfall we’ve gotten this year, and despite all the problems it has caused, sometime, in the next week or two, we will… need some rain. I know! I’ve spend the last two months complaining about too much rain, and flooding, and waterlogging, and everything that goes with it, but it is a sad fact of farming that crops need moisture every few weeks, regardless of how much they had previously. All of that horrendous torrential downpour we dealt with almost two weeks ago basically just ran off, filled up low spots, and killed crop. Since the soil was already full, it simply couldn’t take it any more, and the crop was pretty much unable to use any of it. Since then, we have had nothing but sun and heat, which has been perfect; but, with that comes a net drying of the soil. Soil probes that measure moisture in the ground recorded that canola in the flowering stage of its life uses close to 9 mm (that’s 3.5 tenths) of water per day! It doesn’t take long to empty 3 inches of water out of the soil then, does it?

This monster devours a lot of water!
This monster devours a lot of water!

Yes, I’m afraid that weather just isn’t really ever perfect for farmers, and we can always find something wrong with it! Don’t be too hard on us, though; remember, with 10-15% of our crop now gone, and much of the rest of it coming out of severe stress, we need all the yield we can get out of what we’ve got left out there. We will need all that we can get to make sure we can get our bills paid and hopefully have a chance to try this farming thing again next year (why? I am starting to wonder!).

Summer brings opportunities and hope… and threats

As we move deeper into summer, our crops are slowly advancing into their reproductive stages. This is a critical time of the year, when a rain at the right time can be worth a fortune. The flip side of that is that rain at this time of the year often brings hail, which can be devastating to crops at this stage of their lives.

It may be soon to be thinking about it already, but there is one possibility that looms like a black cloud over all of the hopes we have left for the crop this year. With such a cold and rainy May and June, crops are woefully far behind normal. While we got away with that last year despite our fears, every year is different, and luck can change awfully quickly. The thought of an August or even an early September frost is terrifying. It would devastate many of us.

DSC_0104For now, all we can do is monitor our crops for insects and disease and hope for the best. We have to do everything we can to ensure no pests take away what we have left out in the field, and that means carefully watching for disease, weeds and insects, and spraying for them if and when it is necessary. These are simply to finish the crop; there is nothing we can do now to hasten our crops’ maturity. That ship sailed after seeding was completed. It is in Mother Nature’s sometimes kind, but oftentimes wicked hands what happens to our crops now. I don’t know what the crops’ abilities are to recover from such a hellish spring, but I do know one thing for certain: the success or failure of the crop is now out of my hands. It’s all about the weather now.

One Storm Can Change Everything… Part 2

Devastation. That is what southeast Saskatchewan and southwest Manitoba is experiencing right now. A torrential downpour that lasted nearly 4 days has finally ended, and now it is time to evaluate the damage. Shockingly large rain totals are coming out now, with some areas reporting between 7 and 9 inches of rainfall since Friday. Canada Day long weekend has turned out to be a rather dark and painful time.

I’m not going to go through all the different areas affected, and show you pictures from all over the province. #skstorm will show you that on Twitter, and the news is alive with information, from speculation to hard facts. I will leave the news reporting to the news reporters and do as I have always done; tell you how it has affected my farm and my family.

DSC_0054My last post was on June 22nd, in which I explained my frustrations with the wet weather, and the hope that better weather would arrive soon, as the forecasters told us would
happen. However, optimism was still high for the area, since although many acres had been lost and crops were hurting, the right weather would really turn things around. Indeed, the right weather did show up for a few days, with surprisingly warm and sunny weather gracing the countryside and giving crops a desperately needed boost. Things were actually really starting to improve.

My unease began to grow as Friday came around. The forecasts for the weekend, by a private and often accurate forecaster named World Weather, were becoming increasingly concerning. Overnight on Thursday into Friday, the town of Fillmore (about 12 miles from home) received almost an inch of rain. Throughout the day, little storms began to pop up, and before I knew it, our rain gauge at home had nearly 2 inches in it! What scared me was that the weekend had only just begun, and a rainfall warning was still in effect.

On Saturday, we went most of the day without rain at home. But, by the evening, rain was falling pretty hard- and it wouldn’t stop. It rained hard all night and all day Sunday, even through most of Sunday night. Even yesterday it rained. We stand now at about 3 inches for the whole stretch at home, and over 5 at Fillmore. Crops are underwater in every low spot in every field, pea and lentil fields are yellow, and everything is just saturated to the point of flooding. Thankfully, we didn’t get the awful rain totals that other communities did. Weird to say that we are lucky to “only” get 3 inches of rain at home!

DSC_0062
A wheat field east of Fillmore: Monday, June 30, 2014

My wife and I were on holidays in Kenosee for the weekend (a little lake further into southeast Saskatchewan than our home- about one hour away) where the rain was just as severe, if not worse, but we weren’t home for the storm. It was difficult to control my emotions during the holiday, knowing what was going on at home and all over southeast SK and southwest Manitoba. A devastating and catastrophic event was going on that was going to change many lives and cost millions and millions of dollars in damage. A mix of emotions ran through me throughout Saturday night and into Sunday… not only was I concerned about our crops, but I was also profoundly saddened by what was happening to what is my home country. My friends and family were right in the middle of the worst of the storm. My wife’s mother and father farm near Redvers, one of the hardest hit towns of all. My father-in-law could hardly get out of his yard for the flooding. Highways were washed out, fields were lakes, and basements were flooding. What I feel for the whole situation is something I cannot put into words. It is, quite simply, horrible for everyone affected.

DSC_0067For the second time in four years, Saskatchewan and Manitoba are heavily damaged by floods. I start to ask myself, how do we farm in this climate? After all we did to work so hard to try and seed our crop in a timely fashion, to use the best practices we can to give our crops the best chance they can get, and despite all the hours of analysis we did on crops and fertilizers and chemicals, we still get burned. Still we must wonder how we are going to pay all the bills. Still we have to pick up the pieces and try again next year, and trust once again that if we do everything right, maybe we can move our family business forward. The last 5 years of farming have been difficult, and this storm is discouraging, to say the least.

Despite all of this, I do consider us lucky. Our worst hit fields are well-drained parcels that should clear off fairly quickly. West of home, the rain was significantly less, so our western DSC_0070land will be fine. Our winter wheat at home is advanced enough to handle it, as is our earliest canola and wheat. We did not get the torrential rainfall that areas further east did, and because of that, our land isn’t a lake, and our roads haven’t washed out. Sometimes, when the worst-case scenario gets thrown at you, you just need to look at it and realize that somebody, somewhere, is harder-hit than you are. Although, if we had gotten nine inches of rain here, as many others did… my attitude would probably be much worse.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that this event will cost us money. If we can get a breakeven crop this year, I will be happy. The odds of this being a profitable crop now are not very good. The tipping point has now been reached for much of our crop; the excess moisture has now reached a point where many crops will not recover. Our flat land drains slowly, and it will be some time before we can get into our lower land again.

Finally, however, there is light at the end of the tunnel. A forecast I have been dreaming about for two months is finally in front of us, with warm, sunny weather filling every day of the next week. If this finally occurs, crops should recover relatively well. Certainly, much has been lost that will not recover, no matter the weather, but what is still there may just turn out alright. We will need all the heat units we can get… crops have a long, long way to go before the inevitable fall frost comes. When will it be? Time will tell.

Good luck to everyone out there affected by this weather event. I know that we are lucky here, considering how bad it has been for many other areas. For anyone reading this in the most affected zones, how bad do you think the damage will be? Will your crops recover? Drop in a comment and let me know.

 

One Storm Can Change Everything

Even the best laid plans can be ruined by a single storm.

Seeding had been going fairly well for us and for the area. After a solid 8 days of seeding, we had planted about 50% of the crop. A rain shut us down at that point, which was actually quite welcome. A nice, slow rainfall that gave us 3-7 tenths of an inch was just about perfect for germinating our freshly seeded crops, and even gave us a nice little break to catch up on sleep.

Last week we got going again, seeding another 20% of the crop. We knew another rain event was a high probability, so we went as hard as we could, but showers and surprisingly wet soil slowed our progress. We had a goal of getting our durum and soybeans all finished before the next rain… but we didn’t quite make it.

On Saturday, we had two drills going in different locations, as usual. Our SeedMaster was planting soybeans over east, and our John Deere was sowing durum out west. A freak thunderstorm popped up right on the edge of our soybean field and basically stopped there. Sitting in the truck, I could see a yard only 4 miles away that was basking in sunlight as rain poured down on our field. Talk about frustrating! The cloud sat there, dumping rain on us for what seemed like an eternity before finally moving on. So, then comes the question; clean out the drill, switch crops and move, or wait for the ground to dry?

Opting for the latter, we parked that outfit and continued on with the other drill out west, which interestingly saw no rain at all. The showers continued off and on throughout the rest of the day, eventually hitting just about every field. The JD finished its field that night and came home. We had plans of moving it east, but the morning brought more showers, which not only complicated seeding but also stalled spraying. After an annoying amount of rain and a 10 minute futile seeding attempt with the SeedMaster, we finally had to give up and go home. Later in the day, we did do some spraying, but the drills accomplished nothing.

Yesterday we had more difficult decisions to make. Rain was forecast for the afternoon, so why move and switch crops if we would only seed for a couple of hours?

But, we are farmers after all. So we switched the SeedMaster from soybeans to canola and moved 20 miles to another field. We managed to seed about 1 round around the field before this monster reared its ugly head:

20140526_152637

Storms like this are many things at the same time: beautiful, fascinating, dangerous, and expensive. Tearing my eyes away from the extraordinary magnificence of the power and wonder of nature was difficult, just as was quelling the apprehension and fear burning in my gut at the knowledge of what was to come. The storm approached slowly from the west, veering north so much it almost seemed as though it would miss us entirely.

Then the wind died. The temperature dropped like a stone. A shiver ran up my spine that was not entirely due to the cold. As the wind picked up again, we quickly moved everything we could into shelter, and ran for cover. A wall of rain slammed into the building we were in like a locomotive, a pounding roar so loud it sounded like the world was ending. Sheets of rain blew across the ground like a hurricane had landed upon us. Thunder roared through the sky, and flashes of lightning lit up the darkness like searchlights. Nature’s fury had been unleashed, rather unexpectedly.

At the end, rain reports were all over the place. In Fillmore, where I was at the time, 1.5 inches had fallen, while at home, only half an inch had been deposited. North of us, where friends of ours farm (Osage), 2.25 inches was recorded, while a neighbor between us and Weyburn found 4 inches(!) of precipitation. Hail formed little snowbanks around Creelman (southeast of Fillmore) and ditches ran like rivers. The rain caused a run-off event greater than the snowmelt had, with water tearing trenches through fields like little canyons.

One day. One hour. One storm. That’s all it took to wreak serious havoc on our seeding plans and even cause damage to what had already been seeded. One storm may have changed the course of the entire year; perhaps even the course of our farm’s future. That is how difficult farming can be; everything can change in a split second by something totally out of your control. Now we have many questions to answer: when will we seed again? Will we be able to finish seeding? How much damage has been done to our crops?

None of those questions will be answered for a few days. For now, we will watch the skies and pray for sun, wind and dry weather. More rain in the next few days could put the proverbial nail in the coffin… And more rain is forecast for Thursday. Once again, for the fifth time in as many years, the question lurks in my mind: will we finish seeding this year? Time will tell.

 

It’s Time To Go Seeding, But Mother Nature Disagrees

Tomorrow is the day. I hope.

It has been a whirlwind this spring, spinning us from hope, to frustration, to anxiety, and nearly to despair. Back in early April, for the first time in many years it looked like seeding would begin early. Fields only had a light coating of snow, and a long and brutal winter was finally drawing to a close. The days were growing warmer, and the snow was finally beginning to melt. It appeared as though spring had arrived, and the forecasts for May looked excellent, with cool but dry weather taking us through seeding, until a wetter June would arrive just in time to germinate crops and get everything growing. There were some real concerns about dryness, with fields looking almost concerningly dry.

All of that has now changed.

20140428_074931In April through the first weed of May, we received twice our normal rainfall (and snowfall!), coupled with far below normal temperatures. The ground went from dust to mud, and the cold weather never even let the frost come out. The soil profile still has frost in it a few feet down, and now every low spot is wet. We have reached the 8th of May with virtually no fieldwork happening in the entire region. In fact, until just recently, almost all of the Canadian Prairies were stalled; few farmers could even get in the field to do rudimentary fieldwork.

This weather pattern has been frustratingly persistent. 2009 was a late start to seeding, and was a cool, wet year right through until harvest. Of course, although seeding was difficult and harvest even more so, a year like that grows an amazing crop. The next year, 2010, was much worse, with snow arriving in late April, shutting us down for some time. We were unable to finish seeding that year, and the crop was very poor, with saturated soil conditions killing much of our crops.

2011 was the worst of them all, with seeding being virtually nonexistent. That was a tough year to be a farmer; we all need plants and crops to tend to. It’s why we do what we do. Since 2011, we have had two great crops, but spring has still been difficult, with wet and cool weather plaguing us. Low spots are continually underwater, despite our best efforts to look after them, and our drills spend more time turning than they do in the ground.

We need a weather pattern change. We need to get to drier and warmer weather, or we again run the risk of not completing seeding. We get a very short window to get the crop in the ground here. Usually, it starts in late April and ends on June 15, when the Crop Insurance deadline is. Lately, it starts in mid-May, and the Crop Insurance deadline is what it is. We are losing three weeks of normal seeding weather, and this year will be no different.

Oddly enough, last year was in some ways more conducive for seeding than this year. Although we still had snow all over the place a year ago today, warm, bright, windy weather swooped in just in time at the beginning of May, melting the mountains of snow and getting us to the field surprisingly early. This year, we had very little snow, but cold weather has kept drying rates down to nothing. In reality, this is simply one of the weirdest springs I can ever remember.

20140507_201346Well, that’s the bad news. The good news is that the weather is improving, and the last couple of days have been much better, and tomorrow looks to be beautiful. There was a lot of rain forecast for this weekend, but that has now been reduced to next to nothing. So we have a goal of getting one of our two drills to the field tomorrow, and maybe getting some fertilizer spread on our winter wheat (it looks excellent, by the way; I wish we had more of it!). If the weather cooperates, we could see some real progress by this time next week.

This is one of the most stressful times of the year for every farmer, when frighteningly large sums of money are thrown into the soil and into Mother Nature’s unreliable and often thrifty hands. The last question any farmer, especially this one, wants to ponder is, “will I be able to get my crop seeded this year?” Unfortunately, I have been on the “no,” side of that question before, and it is a terrible feeling. It is so frustrating to once again be faced with that question. Frighteningly, we are one large rain event away from being in real risk of not seeding this year. All we can do is hope that that rainfall event doesn’t come, and that heat graces us over the next few weeks.

Some say optimism is blind, and sometimes I agree with that. But if we want to truly have a shot at getting the crop in the ground this year, a little blind optimism is not a bad way to go. Tomorrow is the day that we try to get a drill in the field, and if the equipment cooperates, maybe we can make that happen. If we do our part, all we can hope for is that Mother Nature does hers.